‘Colette’ and Owning your own Narrative

Written by Amber Jackson |

There’s something so inevitable about seeing Keira Knightley in a period drama. She seems to be in most of them! Yet, there’s something different about this period piece, with Knightley arguably giving her greatest performance yet. But why this one?

“The hand that holds the pen writes history” (Image: Wikipedia)

Colette tracks the life of author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (played by yours truly), a French author you may have heard of. Her story is not only fascinating, but contributes massively to a shift in thinking as society moved into the twentieth century. The film charts her biography from when she agrees to move to Paris with her new husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (pen name: Willy), up until their separation in 1906. 

Willy (played by Dominic West) was a successful French author who had cultivated a brand for himself, alongside his ghostwriters. Colette agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for her husband, which becomes the iconic Claudine à l’école (1900). The story is semi-based on her school daysand France becomes enthralled with this new heroine. Consequently, Willy is hailed as a success! But what about the woman that actually wrote them? What about the real Claudine?

Image: medium.com

The film salaciously wrestles with a complicated marriage dynamic alongside the bohemian boldness of 1890s/1900s France, with Willy openly encouraging Colette’s lesbian affairs, whilst participating in other affairs himself. Their nature with one another could almost be regarded as competitive, particularly as is the case when they unknowingly have an affair with the same American woman (portrayed by Eleanor Tomlinson). 

However, as we are sucked further into this bizzare narrative, Colette realizes that this isn’t who she is. There are indicators throughout the film that Willy isn’t the best fit for her, including scenes of him locking her in a room for four hours so that she writes another Claudine. The success of the Claudine series prompts Colette to claim creative ownership over herself and her work. However, this is something that Willy campaigns against, always trying to undermine her true identity and inhibit her progress as a woman and, indeed, as an author. It’s not so much jealousy, as it is toxic masculinity – in viewing Colette and Claudine as the same woman, he maintains control over his fantasy and Colette is effectively silenced. 

Colette ultimately seeks to overcome post-Victorian era societal constraints. Throughout the film, she struggles with a need to claim the narrative that she believes is rightfully hers. And why shouldn’t she claim it? She’s certainty not the first woman to suffer the fate of not being properly recognized for her accomplishments. 

“I am the real Claudine” (Image: bleekerstreetmedia)

There are many exchanges between the married couple that are heart-wrenching. Colette’s desire to reclaim her sense of self and live openly is reminiscent of a coming-of-age story, as she is truly beginning to learn who she is. She highlights the importance of identity as she enters a committed and open lesbian relationship with Missy, Marquis de Belbeuf, and does this without habitually catering towards her husband. Simultaneously, in separating from Willy, she begins to learn who she is as a writer and creates art exclusively for herself. Colette finds her voice.

This film isn’t nominated for any Oscars, which isn’t surprising. The production of the film itself wasn’t anything unusual, unlike its periodical counterparts; it was shot well, but not adventurously, the costumes looked fantastic, but didn’t scream anything different. Along with a much smaller release than other period films this year, this film has certainly been more limited in its success than it probably should have been.

Despite this, Keira Knightley’s performance carried the narrative. She was incredible in capturing the real Colette, through her passionate and even verbally violent outbursts. This was my favourite role of hers to date, as she gives power to the story of a woman who won her battles and created her own narrative. As a young woman watching, it’s refreshing to see a story about a woman who learns herself that ends happily. I would definitely go and see this again!

Colette is in cinemas now.